In a split vote, the Winona County Board voted against requiring an extensive environmental review for the first proposed frac sand mine in the county — a 19.2-acre mine in Saratoga Township.
While the county will not require the mine proposers to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a judge may. If anticipated appeals to the County Board decision are filed, the question of whether Winona County's first sand mine will require an EIS will be decided by a judge.
The County Board vote on Tuesday came after years of deliberation over both the proposed Nisbit mine and the industry in general. David and Sherry Nisbit first applied for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to mine sand from the site in September 2011. County leaders first tabled, then denied, the request, while a moratorium on the industry was employed to allow county staff members to further study the mining industry and revamp existing regulations for mine permits. Once the moratorium ended in May 2012, the Nisbits resubmitted the mine permit application. By August 2012, the Planning Commission voted on a recommendation to approve the mine permit, but a citizen petition for an environmental review, called an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), delayed the project again.
Tuesday's County Board vote meant that the majority of the board felt that the EAW study was sufficient to evaluate the mine plans for environmental and other potential effects of the mine, and that an EIS — a more in-depth study — wouldn't be necessary. Board Chair Wayne Valentine, along with commissioners Marcia Ward and Steve Jacob, voted against an EIS requirement, while commissioners Greg Olson and Jim Pomeroy voted in favor of further environmental review for the mine request.
Project consultant Tom Rowekamp told the board that, after many citizen comments regarding truck traffic, the applicants were willing to change the haul route. Initial plans would have the sand hauled from the mine site, along Highway 14, to the Brannt Valley processing facility. Now, Rowekamp told the board, the route could be moved to follow I-90, Highway 43, and then Highway 61 to reach the processing plant on Goodview Road.
Pomeroy argued that an EIS would provide more information on the ways the Nisbit proposal could add to cumulative effects of multiple mines in the region. While no other mines have received permits to mine in Winona County, several have been proposed by Minnesota Sands, LLC in Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties near the Nisbit site. "It's going to be absolutely huge," said Pomeroy of the sand industry.
Ward said she had reviewed other EIS documents, and believed that if one were required of the Nisbit proposal, it would not lend much more information than what the county had collected from the EAW and through its moratorium review of the industry. "We have one application in front of us," she said. "As far as cumulative effects, this is 19 acres." Ward explained that the small size of the proposed mine, as well as its duration of only three years, made it a good proposal with which the county could learn more about the industry and the effectiveness of county mine regulations.
Jacob, who made the motion, asked whether the county could impose new regulations on an existing mine that has received a permit if new information about air and water quality near mines were to become available. Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman said the county could approve a "limited term" CUP, which would allow county leaders to reevaluate the permit and the rules applied to the mine after an initial period. In response to questions about whether the mine proposer would pay any enforcement costs incurred by the county, the board was told the mine would be required to purchase performance bonds and set aside funds to cover the cost of enforcement activities.
Olson said that he felt Minnesota rules governing when EIS studies should be used obligated the county to require one. With other planned mine sites in the area, Olson said a vote not to require an EIS would not likely hold up an appeal.
"Without a crystal ball, we don't know [whether other mine proposals will be realized]," responded Jacob. He said without a rail spur nearby, other mine proposals may fall by the wayside, and the Nisbit proposal should not be judged on speculation. "We can't be expected to fully anticipate everything that may happen," he argued.
Pomeroy took issue with the suggestion of a new haul route to follow I-90, Highway 43 and Highway 61. He said while the move might satisfy residents along the former planned haul route, it would also likely generate concern from those along the new route who lived in his district. With the addition of other new mines, Pomeroy said he feared that, "every artery in Winona is going to be clogged."
"Winona's a port city; you're not going to change that," responded Ward, who added that the river and rail traffic had helped develop the area. The highway systems, she said, were built as infrastructure for commerce.
Valentine said he felt that the state highway system was more conducive to truck traffic than Highway 14, adding that he had heard opposition to the original route from residents. He explained that he, like other commissioners, had heard from many residents who contacted him regarding opinions on the Nisbit proposal. When they called, Valentine said, he asked them where they lived, and many did not live near the proposed mine or haul route. Additionally, Valentine said many told him they had been "told" to call, but refused to disclose who had told them to do so.
Jacob said that when residents called him on the issue, he asked them whether their real concern was with potential environmental effects of the Nisbit mine, or whether their goal was to stop the mining of any sand in the region. He said many residents told him they wanted to stop all sand mines, and many added they felt a required EIS was a "tool to stop mining." According to the planning department, about 6,000 semi truck loads annually are used to haul sand for dairy bedding in the county, said Jacob, who said the Nisbit mine would also provide sand for that industry. He said he would hate to tell farmers they needed to get sand hauled from Wisconsin for dairy bedding when they have sand on their own farms. "I feel a little pushed around by the state government when they tell us we can't support our local farmers and the economy," he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Rowekamp told the board that he would be willing to plant native trees during reclamation of the mine. "When we're done, there will be a mound where a hill used to be," he said, adding that people would wonder where the hill went. By the close of the meeting, Olson cautioned the board against moving ahead without an EIS review. "Maybe one day we'll wonder where all our hills used to be," he said.